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LAPD's crime lab hampered by DNA backlog, money woes

January 15, 2010 | 11:05 am

Faced with an unrelenting fiscal crisis, Los Angeles city officials have refused to hire needed analysts for the Los Angeles Police Department’s crime laboratory, hampering a plan to eliminate a backlog of untested DNA evidence from rape cases and angering victim rights advocates.

Last spring, despite a near freeze on all city hiring, the L.A. City Council set aside $1.4 million to hire as many as 26 staffers for the LAPD lab. The proposed hires were meant to fulfill the second phase of a three-year strategy that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other officials vowed in 2008 would solve chronic staffing shortfalls at the lab that had led to a massive backup of potentially crucial evidence.

In the months that followed the council’s allocation, however, the police lab was stymied repeatedly as they sought the funds and permission needed from City Hall to begin the hiring. In recent weeks, a panel of city officials that must approve any hiring during the ongoing fiscal emergency officially axed the idea, ending any hopes that the hires would be made during the current fiscal calendar.

Villaraigosa, who has a representative on the hiring panel, ultimately went along with the decision. Matt Szabo, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, said the city, facing a staggering budget shortfall already, could not afford the long-term costs of adding extra employees to the city payroll.

Instead, Villaraigosa said he supports a compromise that Council President Eric Garcetti plans to introduce this morning that calls for the earmarked money to be used to outsource the remaining untested pieces of DNA evidence to private labs for processing. 

“The mayor was trying to figure out a way to accomplish the goal cheaper and faster without adding to the city’s fiscal crisis by hiring employees we cannot afford,” Szabo said.

For months, the LAPD has been aggressively shipping the backlogged evidence to private labs for testing. Funds for that effort, however, have all but run dry.

If the council rejects Garcetti’s proposal, the money would probably be returned to city coffers -- a move that would deal a more serious blow to the effort to erase the DNA backlog.

The decision to abandon the hiring plan was met with deep disappointment and anger from Sarah Tofte, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who has worked closely with LAPD officials to remedy the backlog problem and drawn attention to the issue in law enforcement agencies around the country.

“If they ignore the long-term need of building up their own lab’s capacity, they will never be able permanently eliminate the backlog and they will continue to deny real-world justice to rape victims,” Tofte said. “They have a solution within their reach and they’re finding a way to undermine it. They’re sending a clear message that the city is going to try to find justice for rape victims on the cheap. You can’t do that. It won’t work.”

Unexamined evidence holds potentially crucial information. Through a complex scientific process, DNA analysts can extract a person's genetic code from the collected samples and compare it with those of known felons that are kept in federal and state databases.

When a DNA sample collected at a crime scene or from a victim's body is matched to a DNA profile of someone in the database, it can offer prosecutors nearly irrefutable proof of the person's guilt. The evidence can also be used to confirm that someone has not falsely confessed to a crime or link someone to other unsolved cases. 

City Controller Wendy Greuel, who was a member of the city council when the allocation was made, called the move “outrageous and unacceptable.”

A November audit of the DNA backlog by Greuel highlighted the need for adding new analysts. Among other findings, the audit found that the lab’s depleted staff was unable to keep up with evidence that had been outsourced to private labs for testing. Federal law requires that LAPD analysts verify the work and upload the DNA profiles into state databases for comparison with those of felons. 

At the time of the audit, 1,100 pieces of evidence were waiting to be uploaded. That number has since grown to more than 1,700, said Yvette Sanchez-Owens, who oversees the LAPD lab.

Sanchez-Owens added that the laboratory’s staff has been unable to keep up with the backlog as well as the constant influx of evidence from new rape cases.

Through outsourcing to private labs, the LAPD has made significant progress on its backlog that once stood at roughly 7,500 cases. Currently, evidence from 1,318 cases remains untested, Sanchez-Owens said. Those remaining cases either have been solved or closed by prosecutors who found them too weak to pursue.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the decision not to hire additional analysts was understandable in light of the city’s dire financial condition. He expressed hope that the council would approve Garcetti’s compromise plan, saying “it would give the city some flexibility in the short term.”

“I’m a realist,” he added.

-- Joel Rubin